Recreating My Pops Pastelillos (Empandas)
The meat stuffed pastry is a staple in many cultures. In the UK, they have classic steak and kidney pies amongst many others, a Jamaican beef patty is a well-known, delicious stuffed hand pie, as is a Haitian patty or a Samosa from Africa or the Middle East. Even Australia makes traditional meat pies that look like our American chicken pot pies but are eaten by hand. However, being of Puerto Rican descent, I believe that pastelillos reign supreme as meat and hand pie king.
So, what are pastelillos? They are commonly known as empanadas (easier for most people to pronounce than the 'double L' in Spanish), but that typically depends on the culture and sometimes the way the pastry is sealed.
Growing up, my dad (Pops) made these all the time it seemed, yet I still craved them when they were gone. I watched him make them until I could make them myself for people I love, as I already do with many other dishes my parents made while I was growing up. See, Pops doesn't just cook, he LOVES to cook and always seems to infuse his culture into his cooking. Whether it be his meatloaf seasoned with Goya products, to his pasteles de yucca or even the pig ears he made that I could never get into, he made it filled with Puerto Rican-American love. And I say this because he uses American cheese.
The pastry shell for the pastelillos can be found in many grocery stores depending upon availability of ethnic foods, there are plenty of different brands, but Goya is a well-known Caribbean brand. This can be found in the frozen section and in a small or large disc size. I usually get the ones for frying, but there are some labeled specifically for baking.
The meat filling can be anything. To be honest, it doesn't even need to be meat, but that's what we're going for here. I've been to a place called Empanada Mama in Midtown's Westside in NYC who has the BEST fillings, but unfortunately they are temporarily closed due to a fire earlier this year. They're variety was endless, including a seafood stuffed empanada that was one of my favorites. I typically like to use a ground meat, although I thought of making this with a stewed meat called ropa vieja (stay tuned for a possible future recipe). My dad would use American cheese when I was growing up because it was affordable, but feel free to use actual cheese or omit it all together.
Preparing the Pastelillos
I typically cook around a pound of ground beef or turkey, it'll yield 10-12 pastelillos using the small discs. Then, I always season it with Adobo and Sazon con Culantro y Achiote (it's the orange pack from Goya, I'm not sure about any other brands). Also, there's a Puerto Rican seasoning known as Recaito that my dad calls recao that you can find in some stores. He calls it that because it's made with recao leaves (long culantro leaves), cilantro, peppers, and onions. This is very similar to sofrito, but sofrito comes red and has tomato paste. I also add garlic, salt and pepper, but always season ground meats to your taste, spice level, and the amount of meat you're cooking. Add the seasonings while you're browning the meat and then let it cool.
After the meat cools, you're going to hand make these bad boys. First, you need a flat working surface, basically any old plate will do. Sprinkle some flour down, maybe 1-2 tablespoons, and then place one disc flat out into the floured surface. If you use cheese, put the cheese down first on the bottom half of the disc, it's a lot less messy and easier to close the pastry later. Then, just scoop in your meat filling, about two tablespoons is enough. Now, lift the top side over and seal the edges of the hand pie into a half-moon shape. If it's hard to close, just scoop out a little filling until it's easier. Sometimes the pastry will rip when you try to seal it, but dough typically sticks to itself. Pinch and manipulate the dough until you have it sealed with no holes. Finally, dip a fork into any excess flour on your surface and crimp the edges of the dough by pressing down.
Once all of these are made, it's time to pan fry them. Fill your pan up with enough oil so that the pastelillos will be half way submerged. I think the best oils for frying are vegetable or canola, but you can use any light oil if you do not have a restaurant level ventilation system so the oil won't smoke. I usually put my oil at a medium-high heat. You can never just tell when oil is ready to fry ,but you can check with a tiny edge of pastry dough or by sprinkling some flour in the pan. If it immediately fries and floats away instead of sinking, then it's ready. Be careful when choosing the tool to cook this, anything slotted is perfect for frying, but don't use something sharp here, like tongs, because it may puncture the dough. Using two utensils like a spatula and slotted spoon together will make flipping easier. I can usually fit two or three pastelillos in at a time, just don't overcrowd the pan or it'll be hard to flip. Fry until golden or lightly golden if you please, just make sure the dough is cooked through and crispy, then flip it using both utensils. I'd say it typically takes 3-5 minutes on each side depending on how high the heat of the oil.
Usually I'll make some yellow rice to pair with this or some tostones (fried plantains) are a classic side to these as well. Pastelillos hold a special place in my heart as the first dish my Pops made that I mastered myself. Sometimes, I still don't think mine are as good as his but that just means whenever I go home, he can make them for me instead.